Owen Williams is an author and a journalist for the Empire movie magazine. His latest book is the ALIEN Survival Manual, published by Carlton Books and is out now. We featured it in the second part of our Geekzine Review of 2017 as one of the best books of last year. It truly is a tome of nerdy detail for fans of the Alien saga films. I was keen to get an insight from Owen into the creation of the book, and duly peppered him with questions. I’m delighted to present his excellent answers.
Andrew Jamieson, Geekzine editor-in-chief
ps – just a wee disclaimer: this interview was conducted in Winter last year so there is the occasional reference to ‘next year’ etc.
Andrew Jamieson: The ALIEN Survival Manual is quite a weighty dive into the iconic film series. How did the project come about, and how much freedom did you have in shaping the structure and content of the book?
Owen Williams: It was something I was asked to do, which is always very gratifying. Roland Hall, the editor, was looking for someone to do the words for it, and apparently he turned my name up. In 2009 Empire had done a special set of features for the twentieth anniversary of the original Alien, and I’d done the one interviewing all the surviving Colonial Marines from Aliens – which at the time was everyone except Tip Tipping. So that was my qualification for the gig. Plus I was available at short notice and not very expensive. Possibly.
The structure and content was pretty much dictated by the app. The idea that the app would be “classified” information videos and training mission simulations was already in place by the time I came on board, and that obviously dictated that the book would have the “Survival Manual” angle. And the images and “assets” Fox were providing also played a part in shaping what the book could be. The edict was that we could only cover stuff from the six canonical Alien movies: so the original four, plus Prometheus and Covenant, which was just out before the deadline, so we were able to sneak it in. The Alien Vs Predator movies and the Dark Horse comics and other peripheral media were all off limits.
AJ: Was the app developed in conjunction with the book, and did you have any input into the app’s design?
OW: It was, but I was nothing to do with it and I only had a sketchy idea of what the app would be. All I knew about Augmented Reality was that it was like that Pokemon Go game, which I had never played. I was in Tokyo for a job at the end of 2016, and a friend I was with was collecting Pokemon in Tokyo Airport, and that was the first time I’d seen the tech in action. So I got that it was somehow going to let you hatch Alien eggs in your living room (or Tokyo Airport), but other than that I wasn’t that clued in to the app aspect.
The app was designed by a company called Scary Beasties, who contrary to their name do loads of kids’ stuff for shows like Charlie & Lola and Sarah & Duck. I love the idea that they were like, “Right, enough of this happy shit, let’s spend a few weeks developing the tech to rip people open with chestbursters on their phones!”
(I’ve never spoken to them, so I don’t know that’s how the conversation went, but I like to think it is.)
AJ: What was the most challenging aspect of writing the book?
OW: It wasn’t that hard a job, if I’m honest. As a fan of the Alien movies it was pretty enjoyable. There was a certain amount of hanging around waiting for Fox to provide the assets, so for a while I was trying to write a visual guide to the Alien universe without knowing what the actual visuals were going to be. That was a bit tricky.
AJ: Which part of the book was most fun to write?
OW: Something that hadn’t really occurred to me when I took the job on was that I’d have to essentially write it in character. The idea is that it’s a handbook for marines in the field, so I had to write it as if I was some sort of corporate suit at Weyland-Yutani. That ended up being quite fun, because it’s this weird line between writing a companion to the films and actually writing in-universe fiction.
And I tried to sneak a lot of jokes in, which might not be immediately apparent. I was afraid that the “voice”, by its nature, would be boring, so I tried to play around with some references and in-jokes that fans would enjoy if they got them. There’s a crack about “inexplicable lapses in safety protocols” in Prometheus that I know people have picked up on. And as I said, we weren’t allowed to use the AvP movies or the comics or novels, so I had some fun making veiled references to those here and there; or references to discrepancies between different cuts of the different films, or between the films and the novelisations. Any time I mention something like “uncorroborated evidence” or dodgy intelligence, or stories that are probably apocryphal, I’m basically talking about something outside what’s officially canonical. I even slipped a reference to Death Race in (Paul WS Anderson used Weyland as his evil company in that as well as in his Alien Vs Predator).
AJ: Which of the Alien films are you the most fond of, and why?
OW: I like all of them, to a greater or lesser extent. I even think AvP: Requiem has a few things going for it (although more from the Predator than the Alien angle). My favourite, of course, is the original from 1979, for the way it takes a very basic pulp sci-fi/horror plot and elevates it to something extraordinary through its production design and direction. Of the sequels, my favourite is actually Alien 3, again pretty much for its atmosphere: it’s so sort of haunted and bleak. I get why fans resisted it at the time – and they still do – but I think it’s hugely underrated, and the assembly cut massively improved it from the theatrical version. It’s just a completely different film. All the British actors with shaved heads that you couldn’t tell apart before suddenly have actual characters. And I love the sub-plot about Paul McGann’s Golic worshipping the “dragon” as some sort of deity. Everyone bangs on about the production problems and how Vincent Ward and his wooden planet would have been so much better. If anyone can explain to me how the wooden planet thing makes any fucking sense… leave me alone.
I think what’s wonderful and almost unique about the series is that they’re all so tonally different. You have this gothic horror thing; followed by an action war movie; followed by The Name of the Rose; followed by a Jean-Pierre Jeunet black comedy. I love Aliens. I still remember the shock, watching it for the first time on TV with my dad, of that scene in the egg chamber when the camera pans up to reveal the Queen. That’s an absolutely formative moment in my film-watching life. But in a lot of ways I do think Aliens is the least interesting of the four. It’s the most machine-tooled, efficient thriller of the original four, but it isn’t weird. I like the oddness of the others. Although Resurrection does go to shit at the end. Up until the moment Clone Ripley falls through the floor into the nest, that film’s totally fine. After that… not so much. There’s no defending the Newborn.
AJ: During the writing of the book, did you learn anything new about the films that you didn’t know beforehand?
OW: I learned some stuff about the fan theories as to why the Aliens look different in the different films. That’s all quite fun. And I realised that using the word “Xenomorph” for the Alien species is actually totally erroneous. That’s something that fandom picked up on and ran with, but if you pay attention to what Gorman actually says in that scene in Aliens – which is the only time the word gets used on screen – he’s actually using “xenomorph” to generally describe the type of creatures the Aliens are. He isn’t saying that’s the officially designated name of the species. So that’s a mistake in fandom that I’ve compounded by continuing. You sort of can’t not use it now.
Oh, and I also learned about “eggmorphing”. It had absolutely never occurred to me before, but the originally deleted scene in Alien, when Ripley finds Dallas and Brett cocooned by the Alien, fundamentally changes our understanding of what the Alien in that film is doing. It seems like it’s somehow turning Brett and Dallas into eggs, so that it can reproduce. Which contradicts what we learn later in Aliens, that there’s a Queen that lays the eggs. It’s right there on the screen, and it’s in the novelisation too, but somehow I’d never twigged to it at all. I guess I never paid it much attention because it was a deleted scene. And by the time I saw it, I’d already seen Aliens, where the colonists are cocooned for a different reason. So I must have seen the cocoon and not thought anything of it, and missed the fine detail.
AJ: What is your opinion of Sir Ridley Scott’s new Alien films? What are your predictions for Alien: Awakening?
OW: I’m enjoying them, for all their flaws. I know that’s a controversial stance. I like the sheer perversity and bloody-mindedness behind them, that Ridley Scott is absolutely not going to take any notice of what the fans think they want. He’s going to do what he wants. And I think he’s right in that. Because the internet essentially just wants Aliens again. I would rather see any number of wonky Ridley Scott films than see Neill Blomkamp just make Aliens again based on some fucking drawing he did that the internet went nuts for.
Scott said a while ago that he thought the Alien – the creature itself – was played out. He reneged on that a bit with Covenant, but I get where he was coming from. There’s actually not all that much you can do with the Alien itself plot-wise. The best of the Dark Horse comics, like the Mark Verheiden ones from the ’90s, are barely about the Alien at all. The Alien is just going to kill people, either in stalk-and-slash mode or full-on-onslaught mode, both of which we’ve seen before. You need to populate those stories with other stuff to avoid them just being repetitive, which I guess is what David’s about. So I predict Awakening will be a lot more Fassbender and not much Alien again. And I predict that it will make extremely odd creative choices and have some very dodgy science in it and some of its characters will behave inexplicably. But I’ll take a strange, interesting failure over a mediocre success every time.
AJ: Do you have any more projects lined up?
OW: Yes, a couple of potentially exciting things, although neither of them are definite yet so I can’t talk about them. Hopefully they’ll come together at the start of next year. And if they come together simultaneously then I’ll actually be a bit a bit busier than I’d like! But mustn’t grumble. This is the curse of freelance life. I’ve either got a bit too much work on, or I’ve got nothing on at all and I’m convinced that I’ll never work again.
I should mention Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror On Film, which isn’t my book, but I’m in it.
It’s a collection of essays on festive horror films and TV shows, edited by the estimable Kier-La Janisse. My chapter is on The League Of Gentlemen’s Christmas Special from 2000. It’s just been published in the last week or so and you can buy it here (http://www.spectacularoptical.ca/store/product/yuletide-terror-christmas-horror-on-film-and-television-2/).
AJ: And what are you reading at the moment (for leisure or work)?
OW: I had a freezing cold, snowy, Christmassy weekend in Whitby at the start of this month, and I took The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by HP Lovecraft, and The Hundred-and-Ninety-Nine Steps by Michel Faber. The Faber one is set in Whitby, and I found, totally by accident, that I was staying in the exact same hotel and room as the protagonist. So that was pleasingly spooky. And since then I’ve fallen down a Christmas murder mystery rabbit hole. I’ve read The Mistletoe Murder collection by PD James, and A Maigret Christmas by Georges Simenon, and I’ve just started Murder For Christmas by Francis Duncan.
I wish this answer was cooler.
When I’ve had enough of Christmas I want to read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Then after that I don’t know. But reading is never work, even when it technically is.
Thank you to Owen for taking the time for a Geekzine Q&A. You can follow Owen on Twitter via @FlexibleHead
The ALIEN Survival manual is out now, in hardback at £25 – although Carlton Books have it for £20 from their website…
Andrew is the award-nominated author of steampunk fantasy novels, The Vengeance Path, and its sequel, Children of War, both available from the Amazon Kindle Store.